There is a Buddhist quote: “If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. Meditation is key.” You might read that quote, take in a gentle breath, and feel validation radiate from within. You also might read that quote and have a reaction of intense frustration. You might think to yourself, “Oh great, I just have to clear my mind and be quiet and then I will be happy? Who has time and patience for that?!” Mindfulness can feel incompatible with our busy day-to-day routines or unobtainable in a lofty, self-help way. But there is a lot of evidence of how mindfulness and its formal practice, meditation, can have significant impacts on physical and mental health. Luckily, there are plenty of informal ways to explore mindfulness. So if you are in the non-Zen camp of feeling like meditation is impossible to achieve based on your lifestyle and how busy you are and how many thoughts you have all the time, take a breath (it doesn’t even have to be anything near a “deep, calming breath”) and consider some easy-to-use, practical ways to try on mindfulness. No yoga mat or headstands required.
Get in touch with your senses and inner child
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” When you think of mindfulness in this way, it does not have to seem so scary or unachievable. There is no requirement to clear your mind and void yourself of any thoughts. Formal practice of mindfulness involves guided or self-guided meditation for upwards of 45 minutes. However, being present and paying attention to your experience without judgment is something you can do at any point throughout the day.
The best way to start is to get better acquainted with your five senses. Remember those guys (and can you do it without counting on your hand)? Experiencing moments on a sensory level is a great way to tap into mindfulness. When you are outside, you are bombarded with a sensory experience. We can hear birds, traffic, and the wind through the trees; perhaps smell the grass or flowers in the air when we step outside; and see all of this nature that is moving and changing around us. It is possible to get in those remaining senses of touch and taste outside, too. When we focus on our sensory experience, we can get into that state of paying attention in the present moment. Exploring our sensory experience can, of course, happen inside as well. Eating is a total sensory undertaking and doesn’t just exist for our taste buds. So consider trying out some mindful eating. Can you pause before eating and look at your food, taking it all in visually, or really take in the smells of the various components of your meal? A huge part of Rice Krispies’ appeal is the sound it makes, and the squishiness and texture of a marshmallow definitely make it taste better, right? Appreciate the experience of eating your food for the way it looks and feels in that moment and before you know it, you are being mindful.
Another way to start this mindfulness journey is to put yourself back in the mindset of being a child. If you spend time with children, you know that they see the world with an experience of newness and wonder. Everything is an adventure and an amazing event to explore. Clouds become furry animals or cotton candy confections and a puddle is an ocean inhabited by sea creatures. Kids have a vantage point of always looking up and seeing the world as this big, curious place and they are experts at not judging their own experiences. Watch a toddler bust a move and you will see how they are just feeling that music, feeling themselves, never mind the audience. Children are not worried about the future or caught up in their previous experiences; they are living in the moment and their pursuit is happiness. We can learn a lot from this perspective because of its focus on the now. Okay, okay, we can’t shrink ourselves to a toddler’s size and obviously there are large benefits to maturity, but we can take a lesson from our younger selves to work on embodying the gentle curiosity that comes with mindfulness.
Unplug while you are still plugged in
We spend so much time on our phones and computers and there are a lot of benefits to being so connected throughout the day. We can work from anywhere, anytime, anyplace. We can stay in touch with family and friends despite geographic distance. However, the downside to the technology we are so attached to is that it causes us to feel less present and more detached from ourselves. The more we are present, the less we do things automatically. When we are on autopilot, we are often not fully experiencing a moment. Oftentimes we are looking at all of the emails and texts and social media posts and start to experience negative emotions such as frustration, guilt, or even shame. If we set some healthy boundaries with our technology, we can possibly avoid the negativity that comes with not being present. There are tons of mindfulness applications on your phone so set aside any worries that mindfulness and technology don’t mix.
We can choose to use technology in a mindful way by exerting intention and purpose with it. Instead of constantly looking at your texts and emails without paying attention or even having time to respond, try carving out time to focus on that technology. Maybe you can start a routine of waking up in the morning and delaying looking at your phone until you are out of bed. Maybe you then log on when you are ready to respond and can be aware of what you want to say versus being careless in your responses. Because how many times have you sent off a text while barely paying attention to it? How could your communications be different or better if you took the time to be more focused? Maybe you can shift to having phone-free mealtimes or checking in with yourself first before looking at social media. You don’t have to rid yourself of technology, but if it is keeping you from experiencing something like a nature preserve because you are too busy looking at your phone in order to get the best selfie in front of said nature, then perhaps take a break so you can tap into having a sensory experience. Next time you reach for your phone, first take a breath and notice how your phone feels in your hand before you actually use it. Before you know it, you will be feeling more present even when you are online.
Pay attention to the characters in your world
Another way to get into a state of mindfulness is to examine how we are communicating. We can definitely go on autopilot in the way that we speak or listen in our day-to-day tasks, especially with the people around us who are part of our routine. How often do you mindlessly answer your partner or family member? Or how many times have you been speaking to someone and felt unheard and detached from the conversation? We can spend more time focusing on characters in a movie or television show than we do in our own lives. We can take for granted the importance of active listening and being present in our communication. This is why the active listening that happens in psychotherapy can feel so new and validating. Mindful communication means listening when someone is speaking to you and taking in the whole experience of what they are saying, tone of voice, and body language. It sounds simple, but so often we are thinking about what we are going to say next instead of really listening and being present to whoever is speaking to us. Try out a conversation with someone important to you that involves giving eye contact and really focusing on what they are saying. Then notice what it feels like when you feel heard by someone else. Again, being present in the moments with people around you does not have to be extreme or void of distractions and thoughts. It is simply putting in a little more effort to focus and pay attention.
Mindfulness requires slowing things down and that can be hard to do. We are busy people and the automatic nature of the world can push back on a desire to be present. But by trying out mindfulness here and there, in these small ways as you go about your typical day, you can experience more focus and calmness. Start small and find ways you can be more present in your life.